Google Equates Black Girls With Sex; Why?

The search engine's profit motive doesn't always work in the best interests of women of color.

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Today, when I do the same search, is the first hit. (Try it.) While it's not a porn site, it plays off stereotypes of black women and girls for its readers' delight, and its content is consistent with old, derogatory ideas about black women that have often been used to justify their mistreatment.

It is true that results shift over time. Yet, over the two years I studied searches on black girls, what was disturbing is how sexist content was relatively the same, and it was consistently worse for black, Latina and Asian women. Some results are changing, but some ideas remain.

Today, when you search for girls of any type, you still often get sexist material. As I've written and talked about this phenomenon, I've noticed that hypersexualized representations of black girls have declined, but not so for Asian and Latina girls. We often get content that is derogatory or sexualized -- not positive or empowering -- for which the audience is not likely an actual girl. Racist and sexist misrepresentations are real.

So yes. Google is racist (and sexist), but it's complicated.


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 It's complicated because it has a significant bottom line. Part of the content on the first page of searches is indexed Web pages, which are often biased toward content that Google owns and makes money from, as documented by (pdf). It's why you're likely to get video results from YouTube (owned by Google) before you get them from Vimeo, even if they both have the same content available.

In order to get the right ads -- which run down the right side or at the very top or bottom of the page -- to show up, Google uses a computer algorithm for its AdWords product, which is different from the one it uses to generate search results (indexed Web pages). This tool creates linkages between keyword searches and ads. Through its ad programs, Google touts in its 2011 Economic Impact report that businesses receive $8 in profit for every $1 they spend with Google.

As for the search results we find on the first page, sometimes they are the result of popularity. Sites that get many visits or clicks are likely to surface near the top, but there are other factors, too, like the way advertising is linked to certain words. Google also makes money from its AdSense program that helps websites link their ads to searches on specific terms.

Search engine optimization is also at play. Managed by a cottage industry of companies and consultants outside of Google, this is a process of linking keywords to pages of a website, often embedded in the code, to help drive a site to the top.